I’ll be honest: Before I was assigned to write this post, I had no idea what the term “reboarding” meant.
As it turns out, I actually did – I just didn’t have a word for it.
Reboarding is what you do when an employee comes back after an extended absence (12 weeks or more), changes role due to promotion or restructuring, or your company undergoes pretty much any major change where employees will need to adapt to new policies, procedures, and processes.
I know what you’re thinking. Reboarding. Onboarding. It’s all the same thing, right? How complicated can it be?
But reboarding is not the same as onboarding.
They’re both equally important and similar in a number of ways, but the structure, focus, and obstacles of each will be very different.
For example, everyone knows new employees need some sort of onboarding process. Not nearly as many realize that reboarding is:
- Something that needs to happen for even the most experienced employee;
- Something that needs to happen even if the employee is returning to the same role;
- Even a thing managers should do.
Seriously. You know what it’s like coming back from just a couple weeks of vacation. Loads to catch up on, overflowing messages, sometimes new people you’ve never seen before but everyone is already best friends with.
If things can change that much in 3 weeks, how much do you think they’ll change in 3 months?
Yeah. That’s what I thought.
So in this Process Street post, let’s look into exactly what you need to do to make this whole return-to-work thing easier. And don’t worry – I’ve broken it down to just 5 things, so for once you won’t have to slog through one 4,000 words just to get to the good stuff. My editor’s happy about that, too.
These are the things you need to know:
- When reboarding happens
- Essentials for reboarding your employees
- Prioritizing organizational culture during the reboarding process
When reboarding happens
“The biggest mistake organizations make reboarding employees is believing the employee already knows what they need to know. ‘Well, nothing much has really changed, have fun!’ […] Stuff does change and the employee […] has changed as well.” – Tim Sackett, author of The Talent Fix
Why do I have to tell Harriet how to do her job again? She’s worked in HR for 5 years; she knows how things go.
Clyde hasn’t been gone that long; it’s not like you just forget how to do your job.
Sure, Sheryl has a different title, but the role is basically the same, more or less.
Yep. I’m sure you’ve said some variation of this about someone else, had a variation said to you, or thought it about yourself at some point.
It’s no big deal, right? Your employee knows what they need to do. You know what to expect from them. It’s not like you’re bringing in a completely new person to do the job, after all.
Except you are.
I’m going to make a quick detour to look at the first two scenarios – promotions and restructuring – but the main focus of this post will be the oft-overlooked one: Leave of absences.
Reboarding scenario: Promotion
Let’s talk about Hanna.
She’s a great employee. You hand something to her, you know it’s going to get done correctly the first time.
Over the past few years, she’s been taking on more and more responsibilities, and you feel it’s time now to promote her to a position equal to the work she’s doing.
She’ll get a raise, of course, maybe a better office. She’ll definitely get a more appropriate title, but otherwise nothing’s going to change, right?
After all, Hanna’s been with the company since it was just a team of four stealing Starbucks’ wifi. She knows all the ins and outs of the business, and she’s basically been performing the role already anyway.
And maybe there is a completely smooth transition from one position to another. It could happen. If you look at the long term, though, somewhere down the line you’re going to hit an obstacle that could have been prevented by reboarding Hanna into her new role.
So she’s been doing the tasks already. Great. She knows that side. A promotion brings increased expectations and increased responsibility. In addition to the tasks she’s already been doing, she’ll have to take over tasks she wasn’t even aware of. She’ll have to justify budgets, request assets, and meet an entire team’s OKRs instead of just taking care of her personal patch.
There’s a whole new layer – and new people – within the company that she’s going to have to learn how to work with.
Responsibilities aren’t the only change, though. You’ve changed the interpersonal dynamics of her team. If she stays within her existing team, she and the other team members now have to adjust to Hanna’s authority as a leader.
Leadership changes are one of the most vulnerable times for a team – even if it’s a positive change. If Hanna doesn’t have the skills to manage the transition well – or there’s conflict within the team, you suddenly have a big problem you didn’t plan for.
Moving her to another team is not without risks, either. Again, you’re facing a leadership change, disturbing the social ecosystem of this new team. Hanna will still have to establish her authority, but over complete strangers she knows nothing about. Strangers who know nothing about her, either.
It takes time to build trust between leadership and their teams, and unless given the proper tools and support to do this, that team’s productivity and morale will crash and burn in the fieriest, most destructive way possible.
Reboarding scenario: Organizational restructuring
Startups restructure all the time. So much. It’s hard to keep up sometimes. At least once a week, I have to look at our employee directory to figure out who’s doing what job now. It can get confusing, but we do have a process for it.
While people get moved around from team to team, it’s never that unexpected or without adequate support.
So, for example, one of our previous content editors had been involved in helping out with our video content as a sort of side bonus responsibility. Over time, they worked more and more on that side of our content creation team until it just made more sense for them to move into a team specialized in customer education.
The actual move didn’t happen overnight, though. Their editorial work gradually reduced as their customer education work increased over a period of time until it made sense for them to take that final step.
The whole process was seamless and gradual, allowing time for both teams to adjust to the new state of things.
Granted, not every restructuring has enough advanced warning to take such a slow approach. Sometimes employees get moved around or thrown into projects unexpectedly. In that case, reboarding is even more important.
Your first task will be communicating to the company that things are under control – and keeping things under control. Once your employees feel a sense of stability and security, they’ll be more open to whatever changes need to be made.
Likewise, the more training and support they have in their new roles, the more confident they’ll be in taking ownership of them.
Reboarding scenario: Leave of absence
There are plenty of reasons an employee might take an extended leave of absence. Health reasons, family health reasons, sabbaticals, just for the hell of it, and many more. I’m going to focus on parental leave here since it’s the one you’re most likely to encounter.
This is also the most likely scenario in which you will completely overlook the need for reboarding.
It’s understandable. Same employee coming back to the same role at the same company. They’ve got that whole backlog of memos from when they were gone. No reason to think they won’t pick up right where they left off.
Like I said before: 12 weeks (or more) is a long time for things to stay the same.
Not long ago, I was out for just two weeks and during that time, we hired a new writer who I met for the first time five minutes before we were supposed to have a meeting with a third person neither of us had ever met before.
The meeting was fine – no issues – but I’d be lying if I said there wasn’t that niggling anxiety that, not only did I not have a clue how the meeting would go, but I knew next to nothing about the colleague I was meant to be on the same page with.
That was after only two weeks.
An employee coming back from a longer absence will have a number of adjustments to make. The company could have new procedures, policies, or processes. There could be new tech to learn. New team members or leaders. Someone who’d once been their junior employee may have been promoted above them.
They might also feel insecure about their position within the company, as well. Are they still necessary? What if their manager regrets letting them come back? What if their colleagues don’t think they’re working hard enough?
Depending on their work relationships, they also may not have had much or any contact with their coworkers during their absence. Someone could have gotten married or had a child. Maybe there’d been a company retreat or celebration of an accomplishment.
Regardless of why your employee was on leave, these little changes are bound to leave them feeling a little isolated and out-of-sorts while they try to adjust to being back at work.
The other side you need to consider: The employee returning from leave is not the employee who initially took that leave.
For a new parent – particularly a first-time parent – their priorities could have completely changed while they were away from work. Maybe – with the shift in the family dynamic – plans and goals that had made sense before the small human arrived no longer make sense – or just aren’t as important.
Maybe that employee wants to be transferred to another department or even another branch. They may want to extend their leave or just not come back at all. So, just as your returning employee is trying to relearn your company, you need to relearn your employee.
“Every reboarded employee should have a full acclimation back into the workforce that parallels what new employees get for their success.” – Tim Sackett
Essentials for reboarding your employees
You should adapt your reboarding process to each individual situation. Depending on role, length of absence, and reason for absence, each employee will have different needs to address.
Having a standardized process will take away some of the guesswork, though. If you have an outline you can easily adapt to each situation, you can pivot quickly when you need to.
For example, say you have a reboarding process for parental leave. It sets up a plan for communication while the employee’s gone, sets up a plan for the employee’s return, fills in all the required bits in between. You’re totally ready for any employee to have a kid.
Then, out of nowhere, one of your employees has to have a medical procedure that’s going to keep them laid up for a while. That parental leave outline will sort of help, but not really.
One of the first questions in the workflow can be: What type of leave is it? Depending on which answer you give, conditional logic will either show or hide the relevant tasks. One process, any situation.
A really cool thing would be to use Pages to document what happens while the employee is away, especially because you can embed workflows and other media right into Pages. Make a Loom video of that week’s updates or even put in a video of the team’s well wishes.
Alright. I’m done selling. I also lied about how long this would be, but you’ll forgive me, right? Have a look at this: There are only 5 things you need to keep in mind when building your reboarding process.
– And you will build a process, right? We don’t have to have the automation talk again, do we?
I’ve started them all with C’s because I like alliteration and it just makes it easier to remember, right?
Sure. Let’s do this. I’ll try to be quick.
Connect your returning employee with their team
Like I said, your returning employee is likely to feel out-of-place and a little isolated. Create opportunities for them to rebuild those important relationships they had before their absence. It’ll also reassure both the employee and their colleagues of how everyone fits together now.
Whether the reason for the absence was positive or negative – or possibly not even known by other employees at all – facilitating that reconnection will help overcome any awkwardness about not knowing what to say, talk about, ask, etc.
Contribute but don’t dominate
Get your employee’s perspective. What do they need? How are they feeling about their return? Are they overwhelmed with too much too soon? Alternatively, is reboarding going too slow?
Reboarding is an adjustment for everyone, so include your employee in the process. Like I said, it’s going to be a little different for everyone depending on their circumstances, so the best way to go about it is to just ask the employee what they need from you.
Collaborate to share knowledge efficiently
For reboarding to really be effective, you need to identify where the knowledge gaps are. What, specifically, has changed since the employee left? What’s stayed the same? Who is the best person on the team – or within the company – to catch them up on what they’ve missed?
I’m not selling, per se, but if you have a centralized knowledge base using something like Pages, the employee then has an easily accessible reference source they can go back to as needed.
The important thing: Don’t make presumptions.
We have this thing at Process Street: Over-communicate everything, twice.
Now, I hate being told things I already know. I get snarky and mean and just all-around not friendly. When I was first told this value, I thought, Great. I’m going to have to deal with people telling me the same thing over and over again.
Well, not exactly. Sometimes that happens, but most of the time, it ensures everyone has the necessary information, which means fewer mistakes.
We’re all about knowledge spread and – for your returning employee – you should be, too.
Celebrate the little things, too
Recognize those milestones. I mean, you should be doing this anyway, but definitely when someone comes back. Don’t let them just quietly sneak in unacknowledged like nothing’s changed.
Welcome them back. Give your other employees a heads up about their return. You can even use these celebrations to help re-establish those work relationships I mentioned. Nothing puts people at ease like having fun with each other.
Celebrating your employee’s milestones will also give them confidence and reassurance about their place in the company. It’ll help them feel like they’re still valued, still belong, and still have something to contribute.
Clarify your plan and goalposts
Set your expectations and be clear about them. Before your employee even goes on leave, establish a plan for what will happen and when.
Will you send them periodic updates? How involved with the company will they be while away? What’s the procedure for their return?
All of these things need to be sorted out in advance. Obviously, the plan is likely to change by the time the employee does come back, but at least you have a foundation to go from.
You also need to allow space for the employee to discuss their own expectations. Do they want frequent updates? Will they be accessible in emergency situations? What do they expect about their return?
Prioritizing organizational culture during the reboarding process
There’s this thing being talked about called “cultureboarding.” I’m going to be honest: Not only does it sound dumb, but it is dumb.
It’s basically some word a management guru (and you know how I feel about them) came up with to milk a few articles and maybe a book out of. More likely, whoever ghostwrites for them came up with it.
“Cultureboarding” is integrating your onboarding (or reboarding) process with your workplace culture. Apparently, not everyone got the memo that introducing your new employee to your company culture is an essential part of onboarding.
No one’s perfect, I guess, but that does explain why so many people have totally awful onboarding experiences.
Reintroducing your employee to your company culture needs to be part of your reboarding process, too. If you hadn’t noticed, the recurring theme of this post is that things change. Company culture is one of those things.
You probably won’t notice it. Your other employees probably won’t be aware of it, either. You’ll all have been there through every slight adjustment your culture has made.
It’s like the frog that doesn’t realize it’s being boiled. If you turn the heat up slowly and incrementally, it never catches on. You throw that frog into a pot of boiling water, though, and it’s definitely going to notice.
Your returning employee is that second frog and your company culture is the boiling water, in a more friendly way. There will be changes that only they notice because they’ve happened so gradually.
As a result, you need to help them integrate back into the perfect temperature of your company culture. Accomplishing that – if you actually walk the talk – is pretty simple. There are five main drivers of good organizational culture, and if you focus on getting those right, you’ll create an environment that everyone feels welcome in. Let me break it down:
Team-building & social events
It’s okay to take time out for fun at work. In fact, it’s an essential part of maintaining a productive team. Work shouldn’t be hard, unpleasant, or tedious. Some parts of it will be, but the majority shouldn’t. Making time for your team to play will strengthen their relationships and encourage creativity and collaboration.
Once a week, my team holds a “training session.” It’s pretty informal; some weeks we don’t even have a set topic. It’s a space for us to relax, reconnect, talk over any obstacles or bottlenecks, and play Pictionary. There are no dumb ideas or unimportant questions, and the only thing you’re expected to do is show up. It’s been great for integrating our new team members (it’s hard to be intimidated by your boss when you see his total inability to draw and arm). For returning team members, it’s helped them get back into the flow of things more smoothly than digging through emails and old Slack messages.
While you’re putting together all those team-building events, remember that your organization’s culture is about the people, not the organization. You have to offer them something they can connect with on a personal level, and you have to connect with them on a personal level, too.
Employees need to be on board with your culture. They need to believe and support your values. They need to be excited about your future. Sure, you could tell them to do all those things, and they would – at least externally – but they’d also probably find another role pretty quick with a company that actually valued their contributions.
So, remember that: Employees are people, too.
Leadership & communication
If employees need to be on board, leadership needs to be extra on board. Leadership can’t act one way and expect employees to do the opposite. You need to model the behaviors you want to see in your culture.
A great example: We have weekly “coffee dates.” Virtually, of course. Each week, three people are randomly put together to arrange a 30-minute meeting and just chat – about whatever. I can’t even list the number of interesting conversations I’ve had; Process Street folks have all sorts of unexpected adventures and backgrounds.
Most importantly, it gives us an opportunity to get to know colleagues we might not interact with on a regular basis – super, super important for remote companies.
Even more most importantly, everyone in the company participates – even Vinay (CEO extraordinaire). There are plenty of companies where employees never see the CEO, or even their department VPs, let alone casually hang out together. I feel like I say this a lot (I do), but employee engagement really isn’t about the big things. NGL, I get a message I’m getting a quadruple raise and my own department, I’d be pretty excited. Then terrified. Then excited again. But the little things go a long way, too.
Actively participating in your culture, communicating directly with your employees, and simply being present in your company’s day-to-day say much more about your organizational culture than any memo’d decree.
Core values, new traditions
Culture is one of those things that’s always in motion. It starts out with one person’s vision and then expands with every new person who joins up. Over time, people’s priorities change. New ideas pop up. New perspectives, experiences, and personalities get thrown into the mix. Organizational culture is a living, breathing organism that needs to be nurtured and cared for.
Your core values don’t have to change for this evolution to happen. You can keep the same values and develop new traditions. Use all those new assets to build more unique and personal experiences. Step back and listen to what the employees think is valuable or how they think the values should be represented.
Recently, our VP started a tradition with new hires where we play a little game to break the ice. The new hire gives us two truths and a lie, and the rest of us have to guess which one we think is false. It’s silly, but it works. It breaks down barriers and it very quickly turns a stranger into a friend. It’s a new tradition, but it supports the same core values Process Street has always had.
Goals, recognition, & accountability
I really dislike the word “accountability.” To me, it always has connotations of punishment or criticism. Or it did until I joined Process Street. Here accountability isn’t something that happens when you mess up (though you are held accountable for your mistakes; it’s about expecting you to take ownership of your responsibilities and act on them.
With great autonomy comes great responsibility.
So, when you’re holding your employees accountable, don’t forget that means their successes as much as their mistakes. It’s important to recognize those achievements – big and small. We have an entire Slack channel just for kudos. Anyone in the company can post their appreciation for anyone else for anything. Kudos have ranged from “Thanks for your help,” to “Great job building that infrastructure.”
We do something similar during each of our all-hands as well as at the end of each sprint. Come to think of it, we spend an awful lot of time appreciating each other… I suppose there are worse things you could say about your coworkers.
And this is where I leave you
Obviously, when an employee comes back from leave, gets promoted, or organizational changes mean they get shuttled off to a different department, you want it to go well. You’ve invested in these people, you probably even like a few of them, but you also hired them for a reason.
What’s your opinion of reboarding? Is it just another way to say onboarding? Should I go easier on management gurus? Are you totally behind cultureboarding? Let’s start some controversy in the comments!